Film Review: Footnotes

Homage of movie musicals of years past has a certain charm but fails to live up to its illustrious predecessors.
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Footnotes is a bit of summer whimsy reminiscent of the films of Jacques Demy, which in turn are a backward glance to Hollywood musicals. The movie, by French writer-directors Paul Calori and Kostia Testut, has its moments, mostly when the camera is in close-up on their charming star, Pauline Etienne (The Nun, 2013). She plays Julie. Like many young people today, Julie is unable to land a stable, full-time job. Set in Romans-sur-Isèr, a city once famous for its fine, handmade shoes, Footnotes tips its hat to France’s storied past—and to an iconoclast who made musicals when others were busy defining the French New Wave.

Demy was not only inspired by America’s most famous musicals; he also sometimes appropriated its production numbers. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), his third feature, is widely considered his best movie and is the source of a breakout performance from a young Catherine Deneuve. With a delightful score and original songs by frequent collaborator (and Oscar winner) Michel Legrand, Cherbourg is actually more opera than musical; in addition to the “arias,” the actors sing their lines. Another of Demy’s operatic films, A Room in Town (1982), is a love story backgrounded by labor unrest. Unlike Footnotes, it is a tragic story.

Footnotes opens with Julie being laid off from a summer job. She soon lands a position in one of Romans-sur-Isèr’s few remaining workshops, a place where shoes are distinguished from the footwear most of the rest of the world wears. Think Charles Jourdan, founded in the same town by the eponymous shoemaker during the early part of the 20th century. Lady Diana was just one of its famous clients. A victim of globalization, the company went into decline and, like Julie’s employer, was bought by a group of investors who profited from the name. Julie works in the warehouse, which supports a dozen female shoemakers. Shoe design and shoemaking are, in reality, dominated by men, but Footnotes’ small fiction lends a fanciful note to a well-written screenplay.

Just when Julie begins to think her luck has changed, the women find a newspaper article in which Xavier Laurent (Loïc Corbery), head of her employer’s parent company, announces a downsizing. They confront their boss, Félicien Couture (François Morel), son of the founder. When no explanation is forthcoming, the shoemakers go on strike. Later, they journey to the company’s Paris headquarters in order to learn their fate. Meanwhile, Julie begins a relationship with Samy, a fellow employee who tells her that he has no intention of spending the rest of his career at the company. Soon, she is torn between her desire for a full-time contract and her wish to be in solidarity with the strikers. When Samy chooses sides, the lovers become estranged.

In Footnotes, just as in Jacques Demy’s cinematic reveries, the writer-directors borrow scenes from American musicals, most notably from West Side Story, choreographed by Jerome Robbins. Other production numbers are reminiscent of Bob Fosse. When the shoemakers secretly revive the company’s classic red oxford, dubbed L’Insoumise (the rebel), during the strike, Julie’s friend explains the shoe’s significance in a production number borrowed from British classic The Red Shoes (1948), choreographed by Robert Helpmann and Leonide Massine. As for the “chorus line” of shoemakers, the co-directors opted for professional dancers; ironically, their dancing is less engaging than their voices. Also, all the songs were looped or recorded in the studio—in other words, the actors are lip syncing. Only Morel has any singing voice to speak of. Julie’s mezzo is sweet but non-descript.

The originality and verve of Demy’s films derived from Legrand. The writer-director’s lead actors could usually put over a song, and when they could not, Legrand’s orchestration provided cover. An integrated musical sensibility contributed greatly to Demy’s simple plot lines. The songs in Footnotes are all by different composers, and while Julie’s first song effectively communicates her longing, others are not memorable or are poorly orchestrated. The choreography, by Nasser Martin-Gousset, is uninspired, and here the blame lies mostly with the direction.

Jerome Robbins’s West Side Story rumble, for instance, is the inspiration for a strugglebetween the shoemakers and the truckers during the strike. Robbins’s choreography is balletic, while in Footnotes, the dancers’ movements are less stylized and charged with emotion. Rather than spectacle and abstraction, the purpose of a production number, and wide-angle shots to achieve that broader aim, the camera lingers on individual interactions. The resulting violence is in stark contrast to the lighter tone of the rest of the movie. The sequence appropriated from The Red Shoes is more engaging, although the actor’s belt keeps dropping off her waist while she dances. That’s not merely a distraction: fantasy requires a level of visual perfection to elevate it from the mundane.

While Demy’s movies illustrate an appreciation for the predicament of women in a male-dominated world, Calori and Testut are rather more admiring of men. Félicien is Xavier’s equal in his disregard of his female staff, yet the directors paint him as a grouchy epigone. Xavier, who would be the black hat in any other movie about a labor dispute, is depicted as someone to be admired, a Svengali who bewitches the shoemakers out of their strike. Julie’s decision at end of the movie represents a penultimate male fantasy. Footnotes hopes to ride the coattails of La La Land, and for the fans of musicals on film, it may do just that. As for its resemblance to the fairy tale charm of a Demy film, to be fair to these debut co-directors, that is as evanescent as a pair of Charles Jourdan pink daisy sling-backs.

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